Thursday, September 27, 2018

Battles People Fought in Animating Pemi Tshewang Tashi

Still from the movie: Pemi Tshewang Tashi approaching Trongsa
When Tharchen told me that he was going to make an animation movie I didn’t know how to respond. It sounded exciting but very impractical. All he had was a bunch of high school graduates, whom he was mandated to train and give employment. It was a suicidal mission. But who was I to tell him, especially so when he was so determined to the extent that he was talking as if he saw the end.

Tharchen, The Dream Maker
Deep down, I knew he would come to his senses and give up on the idea of building a sand castle in the cold Himalayan air. He was just done building a company, iBEST Institute, that was doing so well, and by all means he deserved to enjoy his success for good few years before he took a shot in the dark, that could topple his company. Just some years ago, which he seemed to have forgotten, he went to start a dairy farm in Dagana, which should have taught him some good lessons.

Despite my subtle disapproval he went on. Art classes for 25 young trainees began in earnest. Some months later, Tharchen was beaming with pride when he invited me to an exhibition of artworks done by his trainees. I was least impressed. I saw no possibility that those hand could be used for producing artworks good enough for an animation movie. But you should have seen the look on the face of the man, he was so sure and ever more convinced.


His business partner, Sonam Rinchen who should be worried and cautioning him about taking such uncalculated risk was rather the cheerleader of this idea. Oh, perhaps this explains how they found each other in the first place.

The furthest I could see them go with the project was producing a namesake animation movie that’s barely watchable and everyone saying, “It’s ok for a made-in-Bhutan animation, after all we don’t have the skills and technology, blah blah…” I remember telling Tharchen that at this age and time, when world is so connected in real time, we cannot just complacently use brand Bhutan as a sad excuse for producing a pathetic result. We must rather understand that the Bhutanese audience has seen the best of animations from across the world and it won’t be easy to impress them anymore.

The training was still going on in one room and in another room, I was seated with the script writer, translator, and other consultants to review the script. I could not believe it was really happening. The story was not only decided but even the script was drafted. It was based on the ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi. I was still wondering if Tharchen was serious about his trainees doing it. But he surprised me further by unfolding his project timeline where the date of launch of the movie was set. 


On the floor above where we were, iBEST Studios, where the movie will be made, was being set up at the cost of at least two million Ngultrums. On my way out of the review room, I peeked into the training room and pitifully prayed for the trainees, who have no idea what they had signed up for.

After a year since it began, the training ended and certificates were awarded. With any other training course, that would have been the end. The trainees would proudly leave with the certificate, regardless of what they had learnt. But this, like I said, was an interesting case, where a real project was awaiting them already. It was a test both for the iBEST Institute and the trainees.

While the long preproduction was taking its painful course the newly certified animators tried their hands on several small projects. I didn’t know how long they took or how painful it had been but they were able to produce about a dozen tiny pieces of animations. However, they were nowhere close to what it would take to make an animation movie. Tharchen could still make a U-turn at this point. He didn’t. Sonam Rinchen continued to stand behind him.

The next time we met, Tharchen presented the storyboard. By then he had diligently gone sniffing after everyone in Thimphu who carried the slightest scent of animation-related skill on them and finally it had dawned on him that all he had with him on this mission was his pack of 25 underdogs. There was hardly anyone out there who was ready to commit to such a huge project and the discipline it would require.

At least he managed to pull in portion of commitment from some people who are critical for the project. His used his mastery over the human resource management to delegate responsibilities and streamline the process and let the ball rolling. Six months into the project, seven people backed off. On the home front his marriage was failing. He was the last person to realize that all was not well behind his back. It snapped when he had the least energy to deal with it. It was becoming increasingly painful for me to visit him because each time there was a lot that had happened, much of that being unpleasant. But to his credit, his focus on the project was completely undistracted. He would show me fragments of impressive works and make me watch over and over.


Marching Back to Wangdue Dzong
By the time the project was due to end, I visited him to share his joy but it turned out to be the worst time for celebration. They had put together everything and saw that it was nothing like they had envisioned. It was indeed a sorry excuse of an animation movies that he didn’t even care to show me. For the first time in all times, I saw the man beaten. He declared that it was not happening. He spent so many sleepless nights for a dream, which just crumbled on his feet. It was one damn expensive blunder and unceremonious end to his ambitious project.

I learnt later that he gave a heartbroken farewell-like speech, shutdown his computer and went home to sleep. He surely needed a good rest but not with such burden on his mind.

The orphaned team realized what hit them. They went to wake their leader and promised him that they would complete what they had set out to do. He shut them out hopelessly and went on with his self-imposed isolation.

And perhaps that was exactly what he needed, because it was during this quiet moments with himself, he later shared, that he could assess the whole scheme of things. It was then he realized that it was not just his project and his dream that crumbled; it was his responsibility to his business partner and his team of young people who marched after him with the hope beyond this one project. The whole future ahead of them. It was their dreams too, and he was the captain of the sunken ship.

It was in these moments that he had the shrewdness to look back objectively on those few fragments of animation that were promisingly smooth. Then the whole arena of possibility became apparent to him. He went back to office the next day and began rebuilding the whole structure of hopes and dreams.

He took the direct responsibility of the all three departments that were there, which worked independently but must be in sync with each other. He removed any cloudy layer in-between him and his three teams. They agreed to work till dinner time with dinner provided in the canteen next to their office. The team unity grew gradually and began to feel like one strong beam of energy concentrated on the new-found purpose. The office literally became their home. They were motivated to stay little longer each night and soon they brought their sleeping bags and blankets to office. There found more purpose in staying after the dinner to work few more hours than going home to waste their time on TV. In the morning hours, I have seen them sleeping like logs on and under their office tables or running around with their toothbrushes looking for water.


When office became home.
Tharchen himself hadn’t seen his bed at home for months at end. In fact, he must be the only one among the team who slept with his shoes on, I saw it myself. Sleeping in the office was not the important part, it was the long waking hours that they made best use of which made all the difference.

I thought they were picking up from where they had left and trying to complete the project on the deadline but it turned out that they were starting all over again, and this time it was all so different. I knew it was at a new level when they released the first song from the movie. Before I could truly comprehend the extent at which they have grown in last few months, they released the second song. They were on fire.

I didn’t visit them much during this period because I didn’t want them to waste any minute of their time but I did pay them visits every time Tharchen summoned. He was specific about when I should come or whom should I come with, it’s often my daughter who accompanied me because he wanted our diverse views on parts of their work. During these occasional visits, I have seen some kind of a renaissance at iBEST Studios, strong energy overflowing at every desk, no one looked sleep-deprived or exhausted. They were seeking more dopamine from their work.

On one casual visit, my family got the opportunity to watch the voice artists recording for the characters. Over 50 voice artists are chosen from Bhutanese radio and film industry for 40 different types of voices they needed. I wondered why they needed people from movies when it’s not even about acting on camera but Tharchen told me that he wanted the best. Interestingly, my daughter was asked to try out recording for Lhaden Zam, Pemi Tshewang Tashi’s daughter because the voice they recorded earlier sounded little matured for the little girl character. My girl pulled off quite well and thus became part of the project.

Ninzi at iBEST Studios recording for Lhaden Zam
When the trailer came out I couldn’t believe that the team who started their training from basic art classes had come so magnificently far. In the words of His Majesty the King, “It’s not about if you can or cannot do, it’s about if you will or will not do.” They have done it. 

Now that the movie is in the cinema, it’s out there for everyone to see how much our youths can do, which takes more than just some training opportunity but a tharchenian push. It’s an animation that’s so far, the best ever produced in our country, perhaps the longest and comparable to its cousins across the world. They went for nothing less than excellence.



Warriors at iBEST Studios!
Over Nu. 15 million was invested in this project, which was enough to produce at least five regular movies and Tharchen knows that he will never recover this amount at the Bhutanese box office. He admits that half the investment went in the mistakes they made, the expensive mistakes that eventually pushed them to the level they never thought they could possibly attain. He believes that the best returns from the investment was the empowerment of his youthful team that has now become an asset to our country and to themselves. It’s so intangible, he told me, but that’s what gives him peaceful sleep.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bedside Toilet- Dignity and Desperation

Bedside Toilet Borrowing program was created at Bhutan Toilet Org in 2017, almost accidentally. We had four units of portable potty, which were bought to be used as guest toilets during Highland Festival in Laya, but after realising that the potties wouldn’t be suitable for huge public events we kept them in the office corner for quite sometime.


One day, I got a call from Aue Kuenga Tenzin Supe asking me if I could help his dying friend deal with his toilet trouble. His friend was fighting lung cancer and didn’t have the strength to cover the distance between his bed and the toilet. That’s when we discovered where our potty could be used. We sent him a set immediately. His friend called to thank me after receiving the toilet, and I could hear him gasping for air as he struggled between his words. He told me how the toilet next to his bed had solved his nightmare. We felt so sorry to hear about his death after some months but we took solace in the fact that we were able to comfort him in his last days.

From then on we began promoting the potty as “Bedside Toilet” for people who are bedridden due to sickness, disability and old age. We let people borrow the toilets for free, only to be returned when the patient recovers or,god-forbid, dies. On January 30 2017, we put it up on our Facebook Page and by mid day the remaining three sets were taken. We continued receiving calls in the following days, which opened out eyes to one of the gravest problems that is hidden in the corners of many homes.

We learned the desperation of the family members who had to deal with bedridden people at home, some for as long as ten years. They shared how dealing with toilet troubles causes all the awkwardness and resentment over a period of time, especially when daughter is the caregiver of a father, a son for mother. Besides the health hazards due to poor hygiene the most painful part is losing dignity and self respect as one become incapable of managing their own toilet routine, and people around show signs of disgust at you.

Our initiative was to empower them to manage their own toilet by taking toilet right next to their bed, so that even in the worst case at least it can be handled with little assistance from the caregiver. The toilet set has its own flush system and an airtight waste tank that can serve for a week without having to empty. It’s completely odourless one it’s flushed and the valve is closed.
Training Jojo Dorji how to use it

With assistance from some well-wishers, ShaMa Foundation, Pema Seldon and Dasho Sangay R Dorji, we brought five more units in the following months, but like the first batch they were taken almost immediately. We then started compiling list of requests we received. The numbers were overwhelming and we were helpless. So we submitted project proposals to few organisations, who unfortunately rejected it.
The Five Units supported by ShaMa Foundation Pema Seldon and Dasho Sangay R
Just when we thought we reached a dead end, we received a surprise gift of 10 units of bedside toilets from none other than His Majesty the King. I still wonder how His Majesty sensed our desperation though we haven’t indicated it anywhere. The royal support doubled our program capability overnight and we gladly called everyone on our list. Lives of ten families were bettered thus.

But the list only grew. We have 20 units in circulation that has served over 25 families already. And with growing awareness on the service, we are getting calls each day. Our waiting-list has over 30 people in age range of 23 to 103, and some families are checking in every day to ask if the new batch has come.

I have personally requested three businesses to import bedside toilets from Bangkok and make it available in their shops. I gave them the address in Bangkok. Because their are families who can afford and they want to buy, but it’s not available in Bhutan yet. This too is yet to happen.

With our project proposal reject we began writing to cooperate offices and individuals in Thimphu to sponsor but so far only few offices agreed to help. It’s sad that we receive request calls from very offices that have rejected our request to help. It’s a paradox. With growing numbers of calls from children of aged parents I can see that we are all going to need Bedside Toilet someday. It’s time we invest in it now, so that it’s there when we need it ourselves.

We owe it to OGZ for helping us in transporting the toilets from Bangkok from the beginning of the program and Mr. Kinley in Bhutan Embassy in Bangkok for helping us from there.

Now, we charge Nu.300 per month to ensure swift return of the toilets when they are not used anymore. Of course, we don’t charge that fee if the family can’t afford. 



Please call 3012 to donate to this cause, to inquire about this service or the product.  If you want to buy yourself from Bangkok, here is the link and number of Handy Toilet 0990593956

In partnership with ShaMa Foundation we are fundraising on GoFundMe. You can be a part of this by donating at least $5. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

PaSsu Diary- Publishing Blog into Book

How unfair is it on my part, not to discuss a word about my own book PaSsu Diary on this very blog where it was born and bred? It’s been three months today since the launch and I am surprised that I have waited so much. In the past ten years I have never let go of any such event without recording them, but it all stopped since the day I decided to publish the blog into a book. The idea took all my attention and I was gradually getting used to not blogging. Surprisingly I survived.

But I vowed to myself that I will return to full-time blogging once the book got published, not foreseeing that there is whole world of marketing to explore after publishing. Therefore, even after months I have been able to keep my words. I am still sorting out my accounts and wondering if I should send the book for reprint.

Meanwhile, I want to recount the overwhelming experience I have had in the whole publication process. Of the many dreams I had since high school, publishing a book was my favourite. But my first attempt at publishing a collection of short stories in 2003 failed and the disappointment grew with me for last fifteen years. I was still considering the publication of my short story book when the idea of publishing this blog came by.

I wasn’t even confident to publish PaSsu Diary because all the articles were already published online and there was nothing new I was offering, yet I wanted to try it out because I wanted to get the feel of holding a book of my own without much effort. I thought, may be it might motivate me to get my short story book published. I was only looking at it as a means to publishing my next real book, but now I feel differently. I was absolutely wrong in assuming that all the posts published on the blog would be read. No one has done that.

Suddenly, I started seeing my 2003 failure as a blessing because over the years I have learned a great deal about how to and how not to publish a book, especially how crucial it’s for your first book to be something that you won’t regret. Therefore, I have paid attention to every little detail; paper type, font, binding, cover art, cover design, dimension and even the thickness of the book. Even if the book failed in all aspects I wanted it to be a good showpiece. Seriously.

My editor Nawang Phuntsho, who helped many young people published their debut book using his crowd-publishing platform was so confident in my book, much more than myself, to vouch for 3000 copies in the first print, highest number ever attempted with any book we handled so far. He refused to change his mind about it. Now I feel he had seen the future.

On the day the book came out of the press even I became a little too over confident because the combination of Chimi R Namgyal’s cartoon, Binu Creativedonkey’s colour alteration and cover design, Che Dorji’s layout and design made the book look so grand. Inside the book, I know my editor has put in his heart-work. That’s the way I wanted my first book to look like.

The Fantastic Four

The book launch event was something I was looking forward to for the past fifteen years and I have shamelessly daydreamed many a times over the years. It’s that single event perhaps every aspiring writer hunger for, to hold their book, read to the crowd, and give their autograph. But after so many years of preparation when it was finally happening to me, I was strangely embarrassed. I was so disappointed to find myself not as happy as I should be. Perhaps I was overwhelmed to see my biggest dream come true so easily.

Book Launched by my favourite author Dr. Karma Phuntsho

The event was hosted by my friend Chimi Zom at her hotel, Dorji Elements and my team made sure that it felt like a real book launch. The setting was perfect, better than those in my daydreams. I had only one condition, that they should not make me sell my own book, which I pitifully saw happening during a few book launches I attended. I had one of my favourite authors, Dr. Karma Phuntsho grace the event. His book History of Bhutan made me look up to him as a super human.

In the confusion of everything I realised that I haven’t prepared a speech at all. I quickly thought of few things that are worthy of talking about my book, and having been a teacher all my life, spoke as if I have prepared it all night;

  1. The book is crowd-published. 16 friends invested in the publication of this book. I must admit that even after all these years I don’t have money to publish my own book, but even if I had money I would have still crowd-published the book because it also means crowd-marketing. Investors are paid back in terms of books and they help you reach your book to their network of people where we can never reach. So on the launch day, even before I sold a single book, 1500 copies are sold in principle. Thanks to Nawang for the great idea.
  2. Blog to book. It’s the first of its kind in the country and I hope this will pave way for the young bloggers to consider it as an ultimate blogging goal. But unlike mine, they could plan it well and focus on certain subjects or theme right from the beginning. 
  3. Book is always judged by its cover, therefore never take design aspects lightly. When you put your book on the shelf with other books, you should not feel sorry for your poor book. 
  4. My book is on ordinary subjects written in almost simple 'spoken’ English, that anyone can easily read and dissect, which will often make you think, “If writing such things can be published as book then even I can be a writer.” And that’s what I want people, especially young one to think, to see how possible it is to publish a book. 
Reviewing PaSsu Diary by Kezang Choden
I am proud to share that my book was received warmly by the readers across the country and I enjoyed overwhelming response from the readers on various media platforms. I only made sure that the book was available in every Dzongkhag through my network of friends- and not just lazily rely on the bookstores, while the readers did the promotion for me. I owe to so many people for letting people know and helping me reach my book to the farthest corners.

From the many reviews and comments, I knew that my book was touching young hearts so I tried to reach out to parents to buy the book for their children. I assured them that the book would tell their children so many things they longed to tell them, without having to argue with them.

The best compliments I received was from some readers who admitted that it was the first book they ever read. They shared how my short articles were so easy to read and how they kept going ‘just one more piece and I will sleep’ for the entire night. They were on page 307 by the time they realised.

And of the many pictures parents sent to me of their children adventuring with my book, the most heartwarming was of a girl who has reviewed my book as part of her English assignment, where she went on to argue with her teacher about how a teacher should be. Her language, analytical power and handwriting will grab your attention.
Review by Sonam Choden, XII, DMSS


Review by Sonam Choden XII, DMSS



At the first booktalk I gave at the Bhutan Art Gallery I had a firsthand insight into how seriously people are discussing the subjects I have written about. I am happy that the issues I discussed long time ago are back on the table with this book, therefore I am looking forward to the few booktalks I have planned to take part in.

Book Talk at Bhutan Art Gallery- by Wang




Book Launch Covered by BBS News

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ordinary Bhutanese and Five Star Hotel Myths

I don't know if it's a normal thing to be scared of visiting five star hotels. My usual confidence fades away at the thought of walking into a high end hotel unless I am with friends. I assume many ordinary people get the same feeling even when they can actually financially afford to- at least a meal. There is a mindset that those hotels as places meant only for rich tourists.

Actually I have had the privilege of dinning in almost every big hotel in Paro and Thimphu, of course as official invitee, but all these experiences have made no difference on my mindset. When my former student Gopi, who is now the marketing and communications officer with Le Meridian Riverfront in Paro, invited my family for a dinner, I panicked.

I couldn’t tell him about my strange condition. I couldn’t tell him that the big hotels make me feel small and that the radiance of interiors dim my confidence, that the politeness of the waiters makes me nervous and that I find everything so intimidating.

I rather kept pushing it for another time, and he being a professional who is groomed at a Starwood hotel kept asking when it would be the right time for me to come. Finally after much debate with my inferiority complex I braved to reveal it to my wife and daughter, and that’s when I reduced my options to nothing. Now it was them who pushed me.

Gopi was waiting for my family of five at the gate and we were ushered in to the lobby. I was familiar with that beautiful space, because I have been here twice in the past. But Gopi was prepared to surprise us, he led us to a corner and made us choose cocktails, and mocktails for the kids. That was new to us. I never thought there would be some many different types of cocktails.


Gopi then indicated that we move to the main thing; we were invited to a meal in their Pan Asian specialty restaurant called “Bamboo Chic”. That was another corner that I didn’t have the privilege to explore during my past visits, so I was waiting to be surprised. But you could imagine how uncomfortable I was feeling and how gingerly I was moving, just to make sure that I don’t land up doing anything stupid.

Bamboo Chic was a world in itself, so much part of the hotel yet so independent in its operation. It was as if the restaurant was waiting for us for the evening, the chefs in the open kitchen welcomed us and the waiters ushered us to the table. I was melting yet acting worthy of the invitation. Fortunately, the waitress waiting on us was a friend and that made us feel so relaxed. I was dying to tell her how uncomfortable I was feeling but as the conversation began things settled gradually.

I wasn’t expecting bathub and momo on the Pan Asian menu at least, yet expecting something familiar. But why would anyone come thus far for anything usual. So the manager of the F&B helped us in choosing, and he really knew how to do it for the family; he made sure that everyone asked for different cuisines so that we could all have the most out of our visit.

In the life of mine I have never feasted on such great variety of food and for the first time I saw food as a form of art. The way each cuisine was presented made me hesitate to put my fork and destroy the beauty of it. Following the art of food, was the science of taste; my ordinary tastebuds have never been exposed to such range of sensations. I wish I could explain those feelings that were beyond my usual sweet, salty, sour and hot tastes. Every plate had a story to tell- the literature of food. Now I know why there are food bloggers!







With such heartwarming hospitality showered on my humble family I thought I owed them an honest feedback, or rather a confession. So I shamelessly told them how their big brand scared the heart out of me, how their hotel appeared so inaccessible to locals and how otherwise we so much wish to visit.
I felt so relived having gotten that of my chest but I didn’t expect my confession would go on to shatter the glass-wall I have build between my self-worth and big hotels.

The manager with so much sincerity in his voice confided to us that he and his team can claim it as their achievement if they could make their hotel popular among the local people, make it a favourite getaway place for Bhutanese families. He justified that their success with international guests was not theirs to claim, it was because of their brand and the network across the world. He was so convincing that I suddenly felt so differently about the big hotels- the myth was busted. He went on to bust more myths as he talked about affordability- explaining how any average Bhutanese could customise their menu and have a great experience with the same amount we spend at local café!

Today, I can confidently walk into any hotel and feel wanted there.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sound of Slingshot

It wasn’t until I visited 2017 Haa Summer Festival that I knew there was a sound of slingshot that played a significant role. My understanding of slingshot was limited to its stone throwing function. Even the art of weaving one was new to me; I thought it was just plain leather going by the type of slingshot we used to play during our childhood.

Attending my hometown festival for the first time I was exploring the stalls for hoentay, tongba and rainbow trout delicacies, and there was no way a piece of rope woven from yak hair could draw my attention. But somehow while passing by a tent I couldn’t help notice the slingshot hanging among yak tail, bells and other yak products.
 
A typical slingshot from Haa (Of course they declared it wasn't done well)
I took it in my hands and started playing with it without a stone. It wasn’t long before a yak herder came and began naming the parts of it to me; what seemed like a piece of rope has four parts to it with names. The man told me that it wasn’t done well. There were flaws in two areas of slingshot we were looking at. I was intrigued. He was particularly not happy that the tip was made from nylon material and not yak hair. He said it wouldn’t sound good.


Sound good? What has slingshot got to do with sound? Isn’t it a weapon to propel stone across the distance? That’s the beginning of my understanding of the sound of the slingshot.

The man distanced himself from me into the open space, made a loop on one end to hold on to and sent it swinging over his head and after certain round made a sudden twist. Out of nowhere, an explosive sound was produced, completely unexpected from a piece of rope. It was physics of breaking the sound barrier.



The man did it several times, each one louder than the previous. The sound drew a lot of attention and among the people drawn by the sound were few hardcore yak herders. Looking at the reaction the man was enjoying the fellow yak herders started saying, “That’s nothing. Come on let me show you.” 
The next man to try!
 Soon, everyone rushed to take his turn. It became a battle. Each produced a different sound and it was hard to judge but nonetheless, I gave verdicts, which infuriated the battle further. Among them was an 11-year-old boy named Kinley Wangdi who pushed his grandfather into the competition, insisting that the old man was the best.
That's me failing big time and hurting my shoulder 

The old man came forth with so much pride but the sound didn’t come so well to uphold the reputation his grandson gave him. Clearly frustrated, he inspected the slingshot and declared that it was not a good one. His little supporter jumped in to inspect and much to my surprise even he declared that it wasn’t the real one. He said his grandfather could make the real ones. Everyone agreed.

The discussion then moved on to the components of a real slingshot and I was awestruck by the details of weaving a slingshot. What really made me raise my brows was when they pointed at the pattern on a section of slingshot and said that it could ward off evil forces and that the injuries from such sling would never heal. The passion with which the guys said it warranted no denying. Believe it or not, they mean it with their lives.

My curiosity and their passion for the subject matched perfectly. I was not done yet. I asked, what was the purpose of the sound they produced with the slingshot. They explained that it was the sound that could make the bravest of yak shit in their fur. When the animals go haywire the herder would make that explosive sound once and even the naughtiest bull would fall in line like a good boy. It’s like the command of a military general. 

The sound of the blank slingshot frightening the yaks can be associated directly with Pavlov’s Dog experiment on classical conditioning. Most yaks have experienced the horrific pain of getting hit by a stone shot from a slingshot, and they remember that pain and the sound together. The next time even a blank shot could achieve the same result without actually having to hurt their beloved animals.

Dasho Dzongda of Haa, Kinzang Dorji joined the passionate group and listen to their stories with utmost keenness, it was then that I proposed Dasho randomly about coming up with a competition among the yak herders to see who can produce the deadliest sound. The idea went very well with the crowd and even with Dasho. He agreed that it could be a special component of the Haa Summer Festival.
Dasho Dzongda studying the pattern of a slingshot
The men proposed that each man bring their own slingshot and that there be competition to see the best slingshot. I could hear them talking about working on their own slingshot right way. 12-year-old Kinley Wangdi was definite that none could beat his grandfather. He validated his grandfather’s worth by bringing along a beautiful piece the very next day just to show to me.
Kinley Wangdi with his Grandfather's Slingshot
I went straight to my Japanese friend Akane Matsuo and inquired about the possibility of her bringing in a sound measuring device from Japan the next time she went home. Because I realized that we couldn’t possibly trust human ear to pass judgment on that sort of sound. She Googled it right away and agreed to bring one. After all, it was in her best interest to do any little thing for her second home- Haa. It was her project in RSPN to develop community-based sustainable tourism in Haa, and the slingshot that sparked all the interest was actually hung in her team’s stall that fateful day.

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Monday, August 07, 2017

Toilet for my Mother

My life is all about toilets now. It used to be about blogging once but it took me too far into being the change I was seeking that I could never really come back to full time blogging. If blogging and toilet were two friends I had, 'blogging' would be happy to know that I left him for 'toilet', which is what he wanted. On the contrary, 'toilet' is a jealous guy, he won't let me go back to blogging. He wants all my time and attention for himself.

Having been full time with toilet for more than two years; cleaning, managing, designing, building, lobbying, auditing, campaigning... leaving no shit unturned for the sake of the toilet, one day when Health Minister, Lyonpo Tandin offered Bhutan Toilet Org. to take up a part of project Health Ministry is doing with rural sanitation, I remembered my own village. It's like that carpenter not having a good home. Classic.

Of course, I personally laboured the construction of a modern toilet at home when I was in college and back then mine was among a very few homes in the village with flush toilet attached to the body of the house. But when I look at it now, with my mother aged beyond sixty and her son having become the toilet man, I wonder why I had built it on the ground floor.

Because when we venture into rural toilet project I want people to literally embrace toilet; bring it closer to them and not make it a shabby little room on the ground floor or worse take it far off beyond the kitchen garden. A toilet should be, something I always urge, so close to you that it's the easiest option so that even the oldest member of the family can use it anytime. Remember we too are going to be old someday. At the end, a toilet that is closer will always receive better attention and therefore remain cleaner.

But first I must have it myself in my own village home before I can even think of talking about it. It's about credibility and self-confidence; for people to have trust in my work, and more importantly for me to have trust in myself to take the leap without an ounce of guilt. After all these years I don't want to be another someone who preaches from a book for the sake of a project.

Therefore, this summer break all my siblings came together to gift our mother a toilet that is attached to the first-floor of the house and has all the modern features. Our earlier experience with the stone wall wasn't good; it gave us bulky and ugly walls, therefore, we decided to do the new toilet with bricks. My youngest brother, Tenzin Choda went ahead and started producing concrete bricks. By the time we reached he has produced a staggering 700 pieces. It was enough more than enough for a toilet, and two kitchen sinks.


Toilet for my mother

Our neighbours came around to watch us work and were impressed by the ease of working with bricks and beautiful finish we could achieve with it. I hope they will emulate our way of building a toilet and come up with sexy toilets for themselves.

Three brothers with helping hand from two village friends complete the toilet in five days along side two kitchen sink. Labour charge in my village is high but the two helpers worked over time to deserve the wage, probably motivated by our dedication. One motivation for them was to learn plumbing skill from me. Yes!

There were many new skills I acquired in Bhutan Toilet Org. and one among them is plumbing. The two guys had done many toilet works but they said they could never perfectly connect the sewer lines after putting the rubber washers. They would then seal the joints with a load of concrete plaster. Bad idea. It would leak very soon. I showed them the hack of lubricating the washer with soap to get the perfect joint and they were baffled.

Then, I took over the water connection using CPVC pipes, something I love doing. I gave water connection to the new toilet, the old toilet, kitchen on both floors with a system to control the water pressure (elsewhere it's about low pressure but in my village, the water pressure could blow up a brass bibcock.) When we released the water and it came splashing down into the kitchen sink I could see the joy on my mother's face. My plumbing was perfect; not a leak to be found.
The functional Interior. Final touches waiting for another holiday
The vacation was over from my brother Tenzin and I had to get back to the office but there was one last thing to do, to give our toilet a door. It was going to take one day more, so my brother Samtey stayed back to complete it. But as the Chablop it was my privilege to inaugurate the toilet and I did the honour without the door when no one was around.

I could see the pride in my mother's eyes when she showed our neighbours around the new toilet and I could hear remarks like, 'Pa, it's like a tourist hotel!' and my mother would modestly say, 'It's not quite done yet. They are going to put tiles and geyser later.'

God, it took me half my life to give this practical joy to my mother but now I am at peace. Now I am ready to work with Ministry of Health on the rural sanitation project, where I will use my own example to drive the change.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Toilet at Drakarpo


In April I visited Drakarpo to choose a loo-cation, I mean location for a toilet. So many people reported to Bhutan Toilet Org about the need for a toilet there and therefore I went there to understand the need to come up with an appropriate design. It was my first visit and I was mesmerised by the whole idea of the pilgrimage on the beautiful alpine hill. I decided to build the same toilet I had designed, in my head, for Chelela Pass.

In my last blog Drakarpo Kora in Paro, I tried to express my love-at-first-sight experience at Drakparo and it was widely read and shared. The article was picked up by a travel magazine as well. Among the many readers, a man from Haa paid special attention to the last one sentence I wrote about the toilet and dropped a short message enquiring about the cost of constructing the toilet. since I had the rough costing done already for Chelela Pass I wrote back to him.

The next thing he asked was our account number where he transferred Nu.50,345, which is exactly half the cost of the project. Because it was two unit toilet he wanted to sponsor one unit. If he had asked me to write a proposal it would have taken forever but he was a practical man. He wanted the toilet and not a proposal.
Putting the pieces of jigsaw together 
I didn't have to wait for the other half of the cost because I already had the solid commitment from my friend Kuenga Lhendup to support me with timber. It was from an old home he had demolished and therefore the most seasoned timber we could ever ask for. To make the design more authentic we needed wooden shingles but who would have thought we could get the old shingles from historic Gangtey Palace. Dasho Tobgye Sonam Dorji didn't even think twice before offering to give us 250 shingles. Now the key element to the design was 'bakal' (still didn't get the English name for it) that my friend Kezang Lhamo Dorji had stocked up for me. In fact, she took care of all the administrative matters that I didn't have the slightest clue about.

Five of us at Bhutan Toilet Org office spent exactly 12 days to bring everything together and convert the design on the paper into real toilet near our office. Looking at the final result people would wonder how in the world five people took twelve days for a small toilet like that but we must admit that we were a bunch of amateurs and therefore our 12 days were actually longer because we stayed up late into the nights and forfeited our weekends. We are improving though.

Besides, we had to hire single-cabin Bolero pickups over a dozen times to collect materials from all over and to finally deliver the toilet to Drakarpo. We have a page full of names and numbers of drivers that someday I am going to develop a mobile phone app out of the data.

BTO Finance Officer/ Zowpoen Dorji with Toilet Base
Last Wednesday when the toilet was completed, I took my wife on a date and visited Drakarpo to demarcate the spot for digging the trench with approval from the stakeholders there. Then we sent the GPRS of the spot to our Paro Ambassador and by Thursday evening his team had begun digging. Saturday morning, before we arrived they were done with 6 feet deep trench before and were waiting for us.
Paro Ambassador Druksel with the Toilet Base

There were twenty of us that day including two children. It was just enough people to complete the job in over four hours. It was a miracle that it didn't rain a bit on the day, otherwise, there was no way the pickup could climb the slippery road. From the road point it was only a few minutes walk down to the toilet site but with heavy pieces of materials to carry it was quite a task. In between, we lost a single piece of a baton and it was a challenge to complete the jigsaw without that piece.


By 5 pm we were looking at the toilet with admiration and taking selfies with it. It was as if the toilet has mushroomed out of the ground organically. And then we had our lunch and beer. By then everyone was like a bear.

Interior with Sawdust box
This toilet was our pet project; we have paid attention to every detail of the design- the natural exterior finish, traditional architectural elements like bho phana and door latches, decked potty and sawdust box inside with playboard finish... it's a prototype we thought of for all the pristine locations where water is a problem. The next place we want to make the home for this design is the Chelela Pass and if it impresses our Prime Minister then we want to have it across the national highway.



All of us minus the children who were having fun elsewhere! 

Out pet at the sunset!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Drakarpo Kora in Paro

The Drakarpo Kora in Paro has become one of the most happening Buddhist pilgrimage in these few years. I have heard of hundreds of people taking what is considered the toughest spiritual journey one could possibly venture on. It's the circumambulation of the intriguing rocky hill that is considered sacred. What makes it the extreme endurance test is the number of times you have to walk around the hill- 108! It takes four long days to accomplish the journey on healthy legs. There is also a lighter version of doing 13 round if you don't have four days to spare. I just did one round that day and it took me about 25 minutes on my fresh legs.

Drakarpo

When I was there I have seen people of different ages inching along the hill in peaceful silence- they were all perhaps seeking different things through the same journey. There was no rush whatsoever, and each one has kept their own pile of pebbles to keep count of the number of rounds they made. From the hundreds of piles of pebbles I could make out how many people had already done the arduous journey. Some have built little stupas from the 108 pebbles using red mud as holder. There were also other who marked their count on the ground or rock face using scratch marks.

Piles of Pebble counter
A signboard at the starting point reads:
"This place is considered very holy and sacred. The 8th Century revered saint, Guru Padmasambhava accompanied by his consort Dakini Yeshey Tshogay and Many other Yogis and great masters down the ages have blessed and sanctified this particular place.
If you carefully observe the rocks along the path as you walk along the mountain, you can see foot and hand prints and many other auspicious sings and symbols believed to have manifested by themselves through some supernatural forces. It is also believed that if one circumambulate the mountain 108 times, even sins so great as killing one's own parents can merit redemption."
 

It's quite a proclamation to say that circumambulating the mountain 108 times could merit redemption of sins so great as killing one's own parents but doing it could very much bring about the highest level of satisfaction no matter what type of believer you are;

If you are a hardcore religious person then this journey is for you because it promises you the highest level of reward- accumulation of greatest merits and redemption of your worst sins. It's your stairway to heaven. Every round shall make you feel closer to the heaven.

If you are a spiritual person seeking inner peace then this journey is for you because four days of quiet time on the beautiful alpine hill with spellbinding view of Paro valley will give you all the time and ambience to reflect on your life and make peace with yourself. With life getting busier by the day we must make such deliberate choices to be with ourselves.

If you are not a believer of that sort and you consider yourself a practical person who knows that life is what we make of it, still this journey is for you because when was the last time you tested your endurance? It's such beautiful a way to give priority to your physical health. You have no idea how every stretch of you muscle will be put to task, and you will bathe in your own sweat. It's the mountain gym you will love. After four days you would have added fews years more to your life and you will realise how truly life is what you make of it.
Uphill

Downhill
I particularly love the idea of walking around that beautiful hill 108 times because I like challenges, I am thinking of doing it in three days. My mother completed it in four days, so i have to prove that I am her son. I will time every round and beat my own time and set record. In doing it I want to have conversation with myself and try to find inner peace. I also want break my habits of lazing around and improve blood flow in my heart. I am going to do this very soon. I need to look for a good team to camp up there with me.

Map of the Journey I traced 
The entire path is well paved with stone slabs. I remember my friend Karma Tenzin doing it as a social project with his students when he in Yeozerling School. There is water scarcity and once I was told that a bucket of water was sold for Nu.200. Bhutan Trust Fund has funded a project to bring water there. There is no toilet facility. One private toilet that was there was locked and I am told that it's inaccessible. It's intriguing to find people who won't even share their toilet. But don't worry I was there particularly to look for a spot to build a toilet. We hope to do it very soon.

If you have any questions, leave it in the comment section. I will answer you promptly.

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